It’s time I got back to this blogging business! Too much time away!
Eventually, of course, we meant to have some real farm animals on the place. That means we meant to have some mammals in the pasture. There had been a small herd of Dexter cattle on the farm when we bought it. We’d been offered those along with the rest of the deal, but we were not so inclined toward cattle. And, though we thought we were going to make our own choices regarding livestock, choice has a way of landing on you.
I had become a handspinner not long after we moved to the farm. The longer story on that will come here later. But the short form is, a handspinner needs wool to spin. Since one of the pleasures of spinning yarn by hand is working with different kinds of wool I like to try out the fiber from various breeds of sheep. One of the fleeces I happened onto was Jacob wool.
If you are not a handspinner or a shepherd, you might not be aware of the different kinds and qualities of fleeces. The possibilities are enormous. From Merino sheep we get some of the finest wools (in this instance, “fine” does not mean superior in kind or quality, (though it might be!) but means very thin in gauge or texture) and from Navajo-Churro sheep, we get strong, coarse wools used for rugs and other weavings. In between is an array of fine to medium to coarse wools. And there are colors. Aside from the obvious fact that wool can be dyed into rainbow colors, it also comes in natural colors from black through brown and reddish browns and tannish browns, and greys that might called blue-grey or brown-grey or steel grey or heather grey. And, oh yes, sheep also come in white. Jacob sheep are peculiar in several ways (and how!). One of their odd traits is their spots. The first time you see a flock of Jacobs, you think maybe you’re looking at a bunch of diminutive Holsteins, for Jacob sheep wear black spots on their white coats.
All this variety comes from domesticated sheep.
Let’s have a short lesson in livestock breeding. In the process of domestication, great changes come upon an animal. We easily recognize the differences, say, between a Shetland pony and a Percheron horse. But most of us are not especially aware of the numbers of breeds of farm animals that have sustained farms and markets for centuries. Through the processes of selection and specialization, many (let’s say most) of what are now known as the “minor livestock breeds” have been left behind. If you look at farm paintings from the 19th Century and earlier, you will see a wonderful selection of colors and shapes of chickens, pigs, cattle, sheep, horses, asses, ducks, turkeys and geese. You will see pigs with colored belts, horses with shaggy or curly coats, cattle with woolly heads and stout horns, chickens that lay colored eggs and have feathers in rainbow colors. You will see sheep in colors and sizes and shapes you might never have noticed. Some sheep have woolly faces, some clean. Some have black faces, or white, or faces with eye patches. Some have horns, some not. Some come in colors, some in only white. And some few come with spots.
Many of these wonderful breeds have vanished from the farmscape. Many survive but are rare or endangered now. All them collectively were once the mainstay of farms across Europe and North America, the staff that sustained markets and populations. In modern marketing, growers require animals (and plants as well) that reproduce offspring as much like the previous generation as possible. They want animals that mature without variation, produce a given poundage of salable meat or marketable wool or dozens of eggs on a defined schedule and on a prescribed diet, and will do so every time, from every breeding. The ideal modern farm animal is exactly like its parents. “Heritage breeds” as we call them now, with all their quirks and variations, are the province of small hobby farms.
If you are interested in livestock breeds conservation, or even just curious to see what lives on farms these days, go here http://albc-usa.org/ to visit the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.
Back to Jacob sheep. (Click ’em to make ’em bigger.) I had bought and spun some Jacob wool. I liked it for being of a range of natural colors and because, as a medium wool, it has both strength and some softness. And then along came an acquaintance of ours who had in her field a small flock of Jacob ewes she had taken in settlement of a debt. After living with them for a while, and trying to integrate them into her flock of white Suffolk sheep, she really only wanted to pass them on to someone else. She was willing to sell the 5 ewes for the cost of the amount of feed she had into them. This was good reason to go get them before they ate any more!
The animals we brought home were way outside our expectation of sheep! These girls were athletic. They thought nothing of a 4-foot vertical leap, meaning we had to raise the height of our fences first thing. And they were smart. Smart sheep! Imagine it. We learned very quickly that we would not catch these girls twice by the same trick. We sheared off their fleeces right away that first summer, because they’d been wearing their sweaters for some time. The reason was, they were so wild and so independent, no one had been able to catch them at shearing time. On the day we went to get ours, we ran them through a wire weir into a barn, from which one of them promptly escaped by breaching the barn door with her horned head. Three others went over a little corral fence and looked back at us from the wrong side. We caught one in that first rush. It was a one-by-one process to collect them into the trailer.
These little sheep have become a part of our farm lives. They bring us wool, meat, and pleasure beyond the price of admission. We acquired a ram soon after the ewes came, and, as always happens on the farm, started learning some new lessons.
That’s Grenadier up at the top of this post. Down here is some British beefcake I put up in the ewe shed, to keep the girls happy.
Seems like little girls are always ga-ga for British boys, you know?
The American Jacob is considered a distinct breed by itself. The British and the American flocks have been separate long enough they have diverged. Our Jacobs remain smaller and more primitive than their island cousins. Still, he’s a lovely fella, isn’t he?